This morning we are in Mark 12:28-34. In this passage Jesus fields the 3rd of 3 questions from leaders of the Sanhedrin.
This one comes from a scribe, one of the great textual scholars of the Jewish Scriptures.
28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
What’s the motive behind the question? A scribal exercise? An interest in the requirements of the kingdom of God? We don’t know.
We do know that the Jewish rabbinic tradition had a love for breaking things down into bits – like one of those chocolate oranges. The law of Moses was extrapolated into 613 individual commands, with speculation and study invested into each one of them. These 613 were put into two categories – heavy and light commands.
Another Jewish tradition was to look for a simple, yet profound summary of the many – one root under the surface that held everything together. He wants to know – of the 613, which is the one?
29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’
31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Jesus’ sums the whole law into two corresponding commands: love God and love your neighbor.
The first is to love God.
Jesus quotes the first line (Deuteronomy 6:4) of the Shema (Deuteronomy6:4-9, 11:13-21 & Numbers 16:37-41). The Shema was deeply embedded in the hearts of every Jewish person.
- It was read in the beginning of every synagogue service.
- It was recited every morning and every evening by faithful Jews.
- A written version was placed in a small leather box called a phylactery and worn on the forehead and wrist during prayer.
- A written version was also placed in a small round box called a Muzuzah and hung over doorframes.
The love God commands is total. It is qualified by a total commitment from the whole human personality.
“God lays rightful claim to every facet of human personality: heart (= emotions), soul (= spirit), mind (= intelligence), and strength (= will).” -James Edwards
The second command is to love our neighbor.
Here he quotes from Leviticus 19:18.
This love is also qualified – ‘as yourself’. We are to show the same vested interested in our neighbor’s well-being as our own.
In Luke 10, that qualification is expanded. With the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus shows the extent of love expected in the command and shows us that the boundary line that defines ‘neighbor’ extends to all.
In fusing these commands together, Jesus shows us that loving God and loving our neighbor are inseparable.
32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
The Scribe affirms Jesus’ response. And he adds to it. This is better than all sacrifices. He refers specifically to burnt offerings. Not the ones eaten by priests, but the ones consumed in fire for God.
This conversation took place in the setting of the temple where the sacrifices were offered.
34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Compliment and Caution
“You are not far from the kingdom.” The Scribe had good theology. His knowledge is affirmed. He is also not far from the kingdom because one draws near to the kingdom of God but by drawing near to Jesus.
It’s good to be close to the kingdom. But close is not the same as in.
What held him out?
The Scribe knew the law, but perhaps he didn’t yet know his own heart.
The Law is a Tutor
The great commandments make a total demand of the human heart.
We will all have to answer to God for our response to that demand.
Did we love God and our neighbor with a total love? Did we love God and our neighbor with our money? With our time? With our prayers? With our thoughts? Did we live for the glory of God and the good of humanity as our great purpose throughout the days of our lives?
No one who has tried for very long to fulfil the Great Commandment can pretend that they are not in a desperate situation.
The more we try the more we realize we can never really do.
This is the true purpose of the law. What the gospel reveals to us is that the law was never intended to be a gate by which we enter the kingdom of heaven. In fact it is the opposite. It is a door that is impossible to open by human effort.
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
Romans 3:19-20 (ESV)
The purpose of the law is to make us realize the hopeless limitations of what we can and must do.
And then to lead us to Christ and the realization of what God can and will do for me.
So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.
Jesus was an expert at applying the law precisely where it was needed. To bring about this knowledge.
The rich young ruler – “go and sell all you have.”
“I can’t do that.”
The door marked Law is a door that has and never will be opened. It is an impossibility.
Only the one who has exhausted her own efforts to open that door and sits down abandoning all hope in her own righteousness will then be able to see another door. A simple door marked Jesus only.
I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved… -John 10:9
The Christian fulfilment of the Greatest Commandment
Notice how this flips the formula of the law upside down: we love so that he will love us.
We love because he first loved us.
1 John 4:19 (ESV)
Law based religion tells us – we love so he will love us.
The gospel flips it. We love because he first loved us.
This is the essence of Christian doctrine: he first loved us.
He loved us first – while we were still sinners.
He loved us first – while we were objects of wrath.
He loved us first – while we were far from Him.
He loved us first – while we were alienated from our neighbor.
He loved us as father.
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
1 John 3:1
The Jewish people over the centuries, repeating day after day after day, The Lord our God is one, you shall love him with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength – could never have imagined The Lord their God as a tender father. They could never have imagined the love prescribed by the Shema as the simple, trusting affection of a child with its father. They could never have imagined the Messiah on the cross crying out “father forgive them.”
The essence of Christian ethics: we love.
The inevitable result of receiving this kind of love – the result of warming ourselves in the bright, vast sunlight of his love is a heart whose growing warmth reflects the love shining upon it – vertically toward the one who loves us and horizontally towards our neighbor.
The more we look to and receive God’s love, the more that love flows through us.
The simple inevitability of this statement: We love because he first loved us.
Do you know this love?
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown